Ethical Fitness

vikram karve
vikram karve / 8 yrs ago /





Ethical Fitness – Part 1



When recruiting new people, or promoting/appointing persons to senior / sensitive positions, a number of attributes ( Hard Skills and Soft Skills) like Professional Competence, Managerial Proficiency, Domain-specific or Technical skills, and pertinent soft skills comprising leadership, communication, behavioural and emotional aspects, and even physical and medical fitness are assessed, evaluated and given due consideration.


But does anyone evaluate a candidate’s Ethical Fitness before recruitment or appointment? No, I am not talking about the routine verification of antecedents or background integrity checks. I am talking of assessing Ethical Fitness.


Ethical fitness refers to ensuring that people are in proper moral shape to recognize and address ethical dilemmas. Ensuring Ethical fitness in a proactive manner will result in preventive, rather than corrective, Ethical Management.


Before launching any inquiry pertaining to the concept of Ethical Fitness, it is necessary to explore the moral dimension.  Moral development is a prerequisite to ethical behaviour; in fact, a sine qua non for ethical fitness.  Kohlberg offers a handy framework for delineating the stage each of us has reached with respect to personal moral development.


Stage 1.  Physical consequences determine moral behaviour.

 At this stage of personal moral development, the individual’s ethical behaviour is driven by the decision to avoid punishment or by deference to power. Punishment is an automatic response of physical retaliation. The immediate physical consequences of an action determine its goodness or badness. Such moral behaviour is seen in boarding schools, military training academies etc. where physical punishment techniques are prevalent with a view to inculcate the attributes of obedience and deference to power. The individual behaves in a manner akin to the Pavlovian dog.


Stage 2. Individual needs dictate moral behaviour.

At this stage, a person’s needs are the person’s primary ethical concern. The right action consists of what instrumentally satisfies your own needs. People are valued in terms of their utility. Example: “I will help him because he may help me in return – you scratch my back, I will scratch yours.”


Stage 3.  Approval of others determines moral behaviour.

This stage is characterized by decision where the approval of others determines the person’s behaviour. Good behaviour is that which pleases or helps others within the group. The good person satisfies family, friends and associates. “Everybody is doing it, so it must be okay.” One earns approval by being conventionally “respectable” and “nice.” Sin is a breach of the expectations of the social order – “log kya kahenge?”  is the leitmotif, and conformance with prevailing ‘stereotypes’ the order of the day.


Stage 4.  Compliance with authority and upholding social order are a person’s primary ethical concerns.

“Doing one’s duty” is the primary ethical concern. Consistency and precedence must be maintained. Example: “I comply with my superior’s instructions because it is wrong to disobey my senior”. Authority is seldom questioned. “Even if I feel that something may be unethical, I will unquestioningly obey all orders and comply with everything my boss says because I believe that the boss is always right.”


Stage 5.  Tolerance for rational dissent and acceptance of rule by the majority becomes the primary ethical concern.

Example: “ Although I disagree with her views. I will uphold her right to have them.” The right action tends to be defined in terms of general individual rights, and in terms of standards that have been critically examined and agreed upon by the whole society. (eg) The Constitution. The freedom of the individual should be limited by society only when it infringes upon someone else’s freedom.


Stage 6.  What is right is viewed as a matter of individual conscience, free choice and personal responsibility for the consequences.

Example: “There is no external threat that can force me to make a decision that I consider morally wrong.” An individual who reaches this stage acts out of universal ethical principles.


Moral development is in no way correlated with intellectual development or your position in the hierarchy or factors like rank/seniority/status/success.    In the words of Alexander Orlov, on ex-KGB Chief, “Honesty and Loyalty may be often more deeply ingrained in the make-up of simple and humble people than in men of high position. A man who was taking bribes when he was a constable does not turn honest when he becomes the Chief of Police. The only thing that changes in the size of the bribe. Weakness of character and inability to withstand temptation remains with the man no matter how high he climbs.” Ethical traits accompany a man to the highest rungs of his career.




In a nutshell the governing factors pertaining to six stages of moral development which determine Ethical fitness may be summarized as:


FEAR – Stage 1

NEEDS – Stage 2







Before we try to delve into exploring how to evaluate Ethical Fitness, let us briefly ponder on the concepts of Ethical Susceptibility and Ethical Vulnerability.


Ethical Susceptibility is your inability to avoid ethical dilemmas. Ethical Susceptibility is environment dependent (on external factors) like, for example, your job, your boss, colleagues and subordinates, or the persons around you, or even the ‘prevalent organizational culture’.


Ethical Vulnerability is your inability to withstand succumbing in the given ethical dilemmas /situations. It is dependent on your internal stage of moral development in the given ethical situation.


Whereas being in an ethical dilemma is not in your control, to act in an ethical manner in the prevailing situation is certainly in your control.


Ethical vulnerability is a measure of the ease with which a man be ethically compromised, especially in an ethically poor climate. In situations where the ethical susceptibility is high, morally strong people (ethically non-vulnerable) should be appointed and conversely, only in  jobs/situations where ethical susceptibility is low should ethically vulnerable persons be permitted.



If the environment is not conducive, a person can intellectually reach stage 6 but deliberately remain morally at stage 4 as he may find that he has to sacrifice too much to reach stage 6. This can be particularly seen in most hierarchical organizations where most smart employees make an outward preference of being at stage 3 or 4 (Conformance and Compliance) in order to avoid jeopardizing their careers, even if internally they have achieved higher ethical states. This Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde schizophrenic moral approach is at the heart of many ethical dilemmas people encounter in their professional lives and may result in internal stress due to ethical confusion.


Whenever two individuals at different stages of moral development interact with each other, both of them try to force or maneuver the other into their own appreciation of the ethical situation, thus leading to conflict. In a formal hierarchical setup, the players in the chain may not be at similar stages of moral development thereby leading to dissonance in the system. Where the ethical susceptibility is high, morally strong people (less vulnerable) should be appointed and conversely, in only such jobs where ethical susceptibility is low should ethically weak persons be permitted. 


What is your stage of personal moral development? Be honest with yourself and recall the decisions you made in recent ethical situations. The six stages are valuable landmarks as they tell you approximately where you are and what changes you will have to make in yourself to move to a higher level of moral development. The ultimate goal is to engage in ethical decision making at stage 6. However, the level that you do reach will depend on your ethical commitment, your ethical consciousness and your ethical competence.



Food for Thought


What do you do if your boss is at a lower stage of moral development than you? Do you masquerade and make a pretence of being at the “appropriate” stage of what moral development and practice situational ethics to reap maximum benefits. This Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde schizophrenic ‘situational ethics’ approach may cause your outer masquerade to turn into inner reality. Do you want that to happen? Think about it!





To be continued………….



End of Part 1 of















ASH05 / / 8 yrs ago


in my earlier raving against the framework, i forgot to add the two points i actually wanted to make- not unusual.

in general, it is good to screen people for any callous attitudes and their record before hiring and promoting. it is a must. i guess your overall point is from that perspective and i do not have any quarrel with that. but the philosophical or theoretical underpinnings are what i take issue with.

firstly, the framework aims at unattainable perfection. most people lead their lives quite comfortably without being perfect (ethically and otherwise). they do not suffer from deep emotional disturbances for the numerous pecadilloes that they would have committed along their path to retirement. asking for perfection is a typical hr demand :)) but sorry us line fellows will not have it (that was meant to be a joke, a poor one at that but i must clarify given my serious tone).

unless, of course, their acts resulted in someone's death or caused irreparable harm etc. but such acts most of the time fall within the black and white category. let us take engineering safety for instance which has ethical implications. in the chernobyl incident, the supervisor of the test on the fateful night let the rods hang (lifted) longer than they should have despite alarming signals, and he disregarded warnings from his subordinates. this might look like a mistake but it was a clear breach of all safety standards and any experienced supervisor should have known that; yet he chose to put the entire world at risk. if one knew the details, it was clear case of black and white, and not a grey one.  in such cases, or in the cases of enron or harshad mehta, there is no doubt left in anyone's mind that these people committed their acts of malfeasance with full knowledge of the consequences and the irreparable harm they might cause to others. in such cases, we do not need a framework. we know quite clearly, from professional norms or generalized ethics that what they did was wrong and must pay for it.

that brings me to the second point on your note of vulnerability. if someone is to be perectly invulnerable and unsusceptible, one must have complete power over his realm. it is a trade-off that you may not be willing to risk.

ASH05 / / 8 yrs ago


this kohlberg framework you put out is what we learn in most mba classes. ten years ago, when this was presented to our class along with a jean valjean type scenario, many of us- americans, asians and south americans alike- contested it and could not digest it. it is very judeo-christian in orientation (the professor was good enough to acknowledge this and he in fact agreed with it; he wanted to see what we thought).  there is nothing wrong with a judeo-christian or hindu basis for ethics but other things creep in with that.

for instance, if you let off jean valjean because you thought "after all  it was only a loaf of bread and he desperately needed it," you would score the fourth or fifth stage i think (a rather primitive moral reasoning i believe) on this scheme. but in terms of real life, you probably would score very well with your own conscience and on a scale of humanitarianism- which means you do not subjectively consider the decision immoral (stage 6). that begs the question, what are universal ethical principles?

as managers, most of us know what is wrong and what is right. many times when we do wrong, we do that knowing it is wrong. it is the grey areas that these philosophies are not able to address for they stand on the high horse of this religiosity although they pretend to be secular and objective. for instance, if you are a junior functionary with an expectant wife and a school-going kid, and your boss tells you to do something clearly unethical, and you know the odds of that being ever exposed are close to nil, what will you (not you; most people in that position) do? what if you stand to lose a plum job if you refuse your boss?

stage 6 for the sake of being most morally developed? is it wrong for this guy to neglect the needs of his wife and children who might go starving? what if he thinks that cooking a couple of figures- let us say it is nothing like changing the log book of a nuclear power plant; something much milder-  is not as immoral as letting his yet-to-be born baby die (far fetched but just as a scenario) because his religion frowns on abortion? i can give you any number of real life grey situations. it is not easy. half the time, you have to continue living with the knowledge that you might have done wrong although you thought you did right.

in short, these types of ethical philosophies are quite meaningles mainly because of their detached and at times, completely aloof, stance towards the men and women who have to grapple with the issues. it was one of those things that really sensitized me to how these "soft" theories have been cooked up by non-scientific minds pretending to be intellectual, and although they pay lip service to different cultures, there is the underlying assumption that their culture and diktats are superior.

please do not take my words as supportive of unethical behavior. rather, if we were twenty five years or older, and we needed a framework to tell us what is right and what is wrong in life and professionally, then there is something terribly wrong with us or the parents and the system that made us. it is in those innumerable grey situations that we pray for some guidance, and unfortunately these frameworks and theories fail us precisely at that point.

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